Develop on Cadence. Release on Demand.
—A SAFe mantra
Release on Demand
Release on Demand is an aspect of the Continuous Delivery Pipeline that releases new functionality immediately or incrementally based on business and customer needs.
Release on Demand is the final aspect in the four-part Continuous Delivery Pipeline of Continuous Exploration (CE), Continuous Integration (CI), Continuous Deployment, and Release on Demand (Figure 1).
Since tangible development value only occurs when end users are operating the Solution in their environment, releasing that value at the right time is critical for the Enterprise to gain the real benefits of agility.
The decision of what and when to release is a critical economic driver that requires careful consideration. For many, continuous delivery is the desired end state, allowing the release of new functionality immediately after its deployment. But more often, the release is a decoupled, on-demand activity occurring for specific users, timed for when they need it or when it makes the most economic sense for customers and the business.
The Agile Product Delivery competency article describes how the ‘develop on cadence; release on demand’ dimension creates the ability to deliver valuable solutions to end users with optimal timing and frequency. It raises the following three questions for Product and Solution Management:
- When should a release happen?
- What elements of the solution should be released?
- Which end-users should receive the release?
A Customer-Centric mindset guides how Product and Solution Management answers these questions:
- Market rhythms and market events on the Roadmap inform release timing and aligns with customer needs
- Product Management should target release elements like Features or the entire system to specific customer segments
- Product marketing can target promotional activities to specific audiences
- Sales teams can schedule activities with greater confidence in the timing and functionality of the solution
The Four Activities of Release on Demand
Figure 2 illustrates the four practices of releasing on demand:
- Release –the practices needed to deliver the solution to end users, all at once or incrementally
- Stabilize and Operate – ensures the solution is working well from a functional and Nonfunctional requirements (NFR) perspective
- Measure –how to quantify if the newly-released functionality provides the intended value
- Learn –collecting feedback and preparing for the next loop through the CDP
Release Value to Customers
When the Solution is in production and verified, it’s time to make it available to customers. However, this timing is a critical business decision since releasing value too early or too late can adversely impact economics. In collaboration with other stakeholders, Product Management establishes policies that govern the release process, from automatically allowing qualified code to be immediately available to customers or holding a more formal review process with a manual gate. The more complex the system, the more likely there will be a manual gate to determine the answers to the earlier critical questions (what to release, to whom, and when).
The following practices contribute to the ability to release:
- Dark launches – Allows deployment to a production environment without releasing the functionality to end users
- Feature toggles – Provides a mechanism that allows code to be turned “on” or “off” without needing additional deployment.
- Canary releases – The practice of releasing the solution to a specific Customer segment and measuring the results before expanding and releasing it to more customers.
- Decoupled release elements – This technique identifies specific release elements, each of which can be released independently. Even simple solutions will have multiple release elements, each operating with different release strategies, as Figure 3 illustrates
For example, the SAFe website hosting this article has multiple and somewhat independent release cycles. Scaled Agile can:
- Fix a security issue in our hosting infrastructure at any time (an ad hoc, but expedited, class of service)
- Update any article at any time and notify readers via a blog post (high frequency)
- Add new content to the extended SAFe guidance whenever it’s available (medium frequency)
- Create significant updates to the Framework, including a new Big Picture, at a frequency that balances the ability of customers to consume new versions and our development efforts (low frequency)
These separate flows – ‘value streamlets’ – continue to represent a full, end-to-end flow of value within a Value Stream, each of which is managed to deliver value according to its own needs and pace. Identifying streamlets is critical to enable release on demand, as they allow the different elements of the solution to be released independently in a separate cadence. They also provide insights on the organization of teams and ARTs so that they can independently release on demand.
Stabilize and Operate
Once customers have access to newly verified and deployed solutions, unanticipated problems arise. Higher volumes of usage or unexpected usage patterns may cause these issues. Teams must quickly resolve incidents and security threats within their Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Several practices help operate the solution:
- Site reliability engineering (SRE) – Modern, digitally-enabled solutions often consist of complex ecosystems of interrelated systems serving user populations that span the globe. Site reliability engineering increases the reliability and scalability of these systems by automating operations activities with software-based tools.
- Failover/disaster recovery – Failures will occur. Developing a failover mechanism is vital to allow service to resume quickly or even avoid service interruption. Disaster recovery must be planned, architected into the service, and practiced.
- Continuous security monitoring – Security as code and penetration testing focus on preventing known vulnerabilities from getting to production. But it’s also essential to test services continuously for newly discovered and reported vulnerabilities and to detect intrusions and attacks on services and infrastructure.
- Architect for operations – Enterprises must consider operational needs. High loads, security attacks, and responding to incidents motivate a range of options, from downgrading or removing services to adding capacity. Telemetry and logging capabilities enable organizations to understand, improve and tune their architecture to meet evolving usage patterns.
- Monitor nonfunctional requirements (NFRs) – To avoid service disruptions, teams must continuously monitor system attributes such as reliability, performance, scalability, and more.
Measure the Business Value
The first activity of continuous exploration is to hypothesize—and use application telemetry to measure if the hypothesis was proven and the business value delivered. Two practices support this effort:
- Application telemetry – Application telemetry is the primary mechanism to track and measure data usage against the hypothesis.
- Innovation accounting – Evaluating a hypothesis requires different metrics than those used to measure end-state working solutions. Innovation accounting measures the idea’s intermediate and predictive business outcomes during initial incremental solution development and evaluation of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). (Read more in the Innovation Accounting article.)
Learn and React
The information gathered from the release is used to close the loop in the CDP. Product Management will use this feedback to make investment choices about Features and Epics. Part of the learning process is to analyze the information on how value flows to improve the CDP. Three practices help accomplish faster flow and higher value:
- Lean startup thinking – The benefit hypothesis for MVPs and MMFs is evaluated. If not proven, the organization decides if the development efforts should continue, stop, or pivot to a new idea and experiment with different approaches to achieve the strategy.
- Value stream mapping – An essential tool to improve the flow of value across the pipeline is value stream mapping. This tool provides the visibility needed to identify bottlenecks and problem areas to flow, design a future state, and create Enablers to improve the pipeline.
- Relentless improvement – The ART can continuously improve the flow of value. This mindset is part of the SAFe Core Values and is crucial to achieving results.
Customers realize value only when features are in their hands. When this value is measured, new knowledge informs the ongoing exploration efforts, starting the cycle anew. For one feature, this is the end of the pipeline. For another, however, it’s the beginning, as the continuous delivery process drives new value to users and new learning to the organization. Getting fast feedback is built into the process, allowing the teams to adjust to market needs.
Release governance is the process of planning, managing, and governing solution releases, which helps guide the value stream toward the business goals. In some enterprises, especially those with significant regulatory and compliance criteria, this is a centralized Portfolio SAFe team or function (Release Management is a common term) that ensures releases meet all the relevant business criteria.
In other circumstances, ART and Solution Train leadership and stakeholders from development operations, quality, sales, and other stakeholders assume some release management and governance responsibilities.
In either case, release governance helps internal and external stakeholders receive and deploy the new solution, ensuring the ART addresses critical governance quality elements before deployment—including internal and external security, regulatory, and other compliance concerns.
ARTs plan releases during PI Planning. That’s the easy part. The difficulty lies in coordinating the implementation of features across multiple iterations in the PI. This challenge is especially true when new issues, roadblocks, dependencies, and gaps in Vision and backlogs arise. Due to these challenges, the scope of each release must be continually managed, revalidated, and communicated. Primary considerations include:
- Ensuring the organization’s release governance is understood and adhered
- Communicating release status to internal and external stakeholders
- Ensuring that an appropriate deployment plan is in place
- Coordinating with marketing and with Product and Solution Management on internal and external communications
- Validating that the solution meets relevant solution quality and Compliance criteria
- Participating in Inspect and Adapt (I&A) to improve the release process, value stream productivity, and solution quality
- Providing final authorization for the release
- Acting as a liaison with Lean Portfolio Management (LPM), as appropriate
- Participating in and overseeing the final release activities
Many enterprises hold release governance meetings on a regular cadence to address the following questions:
- Is the vision still understood, and are the trains and teams optimally aligned?
- Does everyone understand what they are building, and is their alignment with the Value Stream’s purpose and current Strategic Themes?
- Are the trains tracking to the desired release dates?
- Does the Solution have the appropriate built-in quality?
- What impediments must be resolved to facilitate progress?
The PO or ART Sync provides senior management with regular visibility into the release progress. It’s also the place to approve any scope, timing, people, or resource adjustments necessary to ensure the release. In a more continuous delivery environment, the participants closely monitor the release section of the ART Kanban. They verify that items are released when needed to the right customer segments, manage canary and dark releases, evaluate hypotheses, and confirm the removal of feature toggles after production verification.
Enabling Release on Demand with DevOps
This aspect of the CDP reveals the cumulative value of all upstream efforts, closing the learning loop that began with continuous exploration. All activities must be quick, low-risk, aligned to business outcomes, and optimized for fast, accurate feedback. DevOps practices and tooling enable the responsiveness that is so critical in this ‘last mile’ of the delivery pipeline.
Figure 4 illustrates how SAFe’s CALMR approach to DevOps (center) and several practice domains (inner rings) enable release on demand. Each of the four activities (in green) is a collaborative effort that draws upon DevOps expertise from multiple disciplines to maximize business value and validate learning.
Releasing, for example, requires immediate activation of deployed solutions using infrastructure configurations stored in version control, proactive monitoring that informs operations teams of the health, security, and value of those solutions, and fast recovery from production issues specified in SLAs.
DevOps enables all four release on demand activities, though with different combinations of technical practices and tooling. See the DevOps article series for more guidance on how it empowers the CDP. Even after implementing a CDP and applying DevOps, organizations may still suffer delays that inhibit getting value to customers when business needs dictate. See the ART Flow article for more information on making value flow without interruption (Principle #6).
Learn More Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Random House, Inc, 2011.  Womack, Jim. Gemba Walks Expanded 2nd Edition. Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc, 2019.  Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise (Agile Software Development Series). Pearson Education, 2011.  Gothelf, Jeff, and Josh Seiden. Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams. O’Reilly Media, 2016.
Last update: 9 January 2023